Nestle Purina Pet Care Tiptoes into Voice Technology      

By Dale Buss

Tying commerce to the human voice is one of the biggest technological opportunities – and challenges – before CPG companies these days. And as one of the largest pet-food companies in America, Nestle Purina Pet Care has been trying to harness the power of voice technology in marketing its dog-food brands including iconic Alpo, Beneful, Prime and PurinaOne.

The company is adopting an effective approach to voice communications with its pet-food-buying consumers. It focused on testing the limits of the technology through Purina brands’ sponsorship of the National Dog Show, an all-breed “benched conformation” show sanctioned by the American Kennel Club and the Kennel Club of Philadelphia each November. Nestle Purina is a so-called “Platinum Sponsor” of the show with a huge presence and involvement, so it’s a great platform for digital technology experimentation that would enhance the company’s important investment there.

Waltham, Massachusetts-based Mobiquity began working with Nestle Purina on voice technology four years ago, and it began – as many tests of new digital methods do – in a small way.

“The only way to get the team to engage – and a great place to start – was just to build internal mind share and awareness and an interest in trying something in voice,” said Jonathan Patrizio, principal solutions architect for Mobiquity. That “something” was building and launching an “Alexa skill” – a program for voice communication with Amazon’s voice avatar – for Nestle Purina.

“So, we thought about a consumer watching the National Dog Show and seeing a dog breed they knew nothing about. The Number One location for smart speakers now is in the living room; it has moved from the kitchen. What we envisioned was people who might have curiosity about that dog breed and would want to research it, including which dogs might be most suitable for families and lifestyles.”

Voice queries via Alexa activated visual and audio content that the questioner could access via computer or smart TV.

Mobiquity compiled information about all 186 dog breeds in the show. “Many had names that Alexa couldn’t even speak,” Patrizio said. “So we worked with consultants into Alexa to improve the way Alexa spoke and recognized different dog breeds.”

It was important for Purina also to see the impact of using video screens that would complement the audio communication and provide the bulk of the information about breeds, Patrizio said.

“Hearing about a breed is not the same as seeing an image of it,” he said. Echo Show is a touch screen that Amazon developed to go along with the Alexa function. “People are used to using touch, and they can also navigate between different things with their voices to trigger a response [on Echo Show] and continue their journey with their finger,” Patrizio explained. “But it’s always voice first.”

For instance, users could ask about “dogs that are good indoors” or are “low shedding.” Users would get a series of results and browse them or pick one with their finger and, maybe, browse others by saying, “Go through the next three.”

“That’s one thing Alexa isn’t good at; sometimes the browsing capability is actually easier to do on a laptop than with voice,” Patrizio said. Thus the importance of having a “multimodal display that can let you browse through it,” such as Echo Show.

CPG marketing executives typically understand that they should be considering the capabilities of voice-recognition technology as they move forward, he said. “But often, clients just want to check a box, saying they’ve done something in voice,” Patrizio said. “What we’re increasingly finding is that they ought to be building a voice strategy and committing to voice as being a new channel. They should be building that out longer term, and it’s got to complement additional channels and initiatives such as mobile and online. Just checking off the box isn’t serving them well.”

To go beyond “checking the box,” Patrizio said, CPG marketers “need to take a step back and figure: Where does voice play into other things they have going on? What are the specific uses for consumers, customers and so on? We try to bring a capability that doesn’t just build something but gets to the essence of why they’re building it and who the users are and how the users are interacting.”

The primacy of digital voice-enabled communication is underscored by Josh Smith, the CEO of Metova, an Arkansas-based tech-development and -consulting firm that is helping client companies grapple with the possibilities and the pitfalls.

“It’s as big as touch-screen technology was when it came in, or even bigger,” Smith told CPGmatters. “We’ve slowly evolved with how we interact with machines – from punch cards to keyboards to the mouse to the fluidity of the touchscreen. How do humans truly interact? That’s where voice plays such a huge role. That’s what’s going into the next generation of machines. Ultimately, that’s the goal.”

                                                                        Early February 2020
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